Illegal international wildlife trade presents a related threat
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — Conservation advocates say some Mexican fishermen are ignoring a ban on gillnets in the northern Gulf of California, driving a porpoise species even closer to extinction.
Biologists say there are less than 100 vaquitas left in the area, and perhaps as few as 50, and despite Mexico’s stated intention to enforce the gillnet ban, Greenpeace observers reported this week that the now-illegal nets are still being widely used.
Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto created a marine reserve and banned gillnet fishing back in April, but Greenpeace says there’s not nearly enough enforcement, and not enough of an effort has been made to help fishermen in the region transition away from gillnet fishing.
Vaquitas are endemic to the northern Gulf of Mexico, and they’re being caught in nets used to capture another endangered species called the totoaba. The totoaba’s swim bladders are dried and shipped to China, where they are prized for supposed medicinal qualities and sold for thousand of dollars on the black market.
“Forbidden gillnets are all over the the bay and the direct result is that more vaquitas are in danger … not less as we had been led to believe,” said Silvia Diaz, a Greenpeace campaign manager in Mexico. Diaz said it’s not clear exactly how many fishing boats are still using the illegal nets, but observers have seen dozens of them.
“While the Mexican government has taken steps to protect them, it is not enough. A marine reserve is an empty declaration without the proper resources and commitment to enforcement,” Diaz said in a statement.
“Even though President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the investment of 30 million pesos to buy 3 drones, and also the presence of 8 fast speedboats controlled by the Navy, this is not happening,” Diaz told Summit Voice via email. “The drones are still not appearing, even according to the environmental federal agency (Profepa). The members of that agency are so few it is not enough to stop the illegal fishing.”
Diaz said the Mexican government has busted a few fishermen, but that hasn’t deterred others from illegal use of gillnets.
“The penalty is too low and the people busted are free after paying a bail. The problem is that the illegal fishermen earn a lot of money for each totoaba bladder) and the legal risk is too low,” she said.
The United States has also committed to strengthen customs to crackdown on illegal wildlife trade, but as in Mexico, enforcement is still weak.
Greenpeace is urging authorities in both countries to strengthen enforcement and demanding that Hong Kong establish an anti-smuggling task force on endangered species as part of a package of measures to shut down the illegal wildlife trade.
“Hong Kong authorities have the power to shut this market down. If they fail to act, not only will they be allowing an illegal trade to fester and fuel corruption in China and elsewhere, but they will be responsible for pushing the vaquita to extinction,” said Bonnie Tang, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia.